EC Could We Be Hitting Natural Gas Limits Already?

Australia’s natural gas exports have risen mostly as result of the Gorgon LNG Project off the northwest coast of Australia. This project was expected to be high cost at $37 billion when it was approved in 2009. The actual cost soared to $54 billion, according to a 2017 cost estimate. The high (and uncertain) cost of large LNG projects makes investors cautious regarding new investments in LNG exports. S&P Global by Platts reported in June, 2021, “Australia’s own exports are expected to be be relatively stable in the coming years.” This statement was made after saying that a project in Mozambique, Africa, is being cancelled because of stability issues.

The country with the largest increase in natural gas exports in recent years is the United States. The US is not shown separately in Figure 7, but it represents the largest portion of natural gas exported from North America. Prior to 2017, North America was a net importer of natural gas, including LNG from from Trinidad and Tobago, Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere.

[4] The United States has a strange reason for wanting to export large quantities of natural gas overseas: Its natural gas prices have been too low for producers for a long time. Natural gas producers hope the exports will raise natural gas prices within the US.

Natural gas prices vary widely around the world because the fuel is expensive to ship and difficult to store. Figure 5 (above) shows that, at least since 2009, US natural gas prices have been unusually low.

The main reason why the price of natural gas dropped around 2009 seems to have been a ramp up in US shale oil production that started about this time. While the main objective of most of the shale drilling was oil, natural gas was a byproduct that came along. Oil producers were willing to almost give the natural gas away, if they could make money on the oil. However, they also had trouble making money on the oil extraction. That seems to be the reason why oil extraction from shale is now being reduced.

Figure 8 shows a chart prepared by the US Energy Administration showing US dry natural gas production, by type: non-shale, Appalachia shale and other shale.

Figure 8. Figure by EIA showing US natural gas production in three categories.

Based on Figure 8, the timing of the ramp up of natural gas from shale seems to correspond with the timing in the drop in natural gas prices. By 2008 (the first year shown on this chart), gas from shale formations had risen to well over 10% of US natural gas production. At this level, it would be expected to have an impact of prices. Adding natural gas to an already well-supplied market would be likely to reduce US natural gas prices, because with natural gas, the situation isn’t “build it, and demand will come.”

People don’t raise the temperature to which they heat their homes, at least not very much, simply because the natural gas price is lower. The use of natural gas as a transport fuel has not caught on because of all of the infrastructure that would be required to enable the transition. The one substitution that has tended to take place is the use of natural gas to replace coal, particularly in electricity generation. This likely means that a major shift back to coal use cannot really be done, although a smaller shift can be done, and, in fact, seems to already be taking place, based on EIA data.

[5] The reason that limits are a concern for natural gas is because the economy is very much more interconnected, and much more dependent on energy, than most people assume.

I think of the economy as being interconnected in much the same way as the many systems within a human being are interconnected. For example, humans have a circulatory system, or perhaps several such circulatory systems, for different fluids; economies have highway systems and road systems, as well as pipeline systems.

Humans require food at regular intervals. They have a digestive system to help them digest this food. The food has to be of the right kinds, not all sweets, for example. The economy needs energy of the right kinds, as well. It has many kinds of devices that use this energy. Intermittent electricity from wind or solar, by itself, doesn’t really work.

Human beings have kinds of alarms that go off to tell if there is something wrong. They feel hungry if they haven’t eaten in a while. They feel thirsty if they need water to drink. They may feel overheated if an infection gives them a fever. An economy has alarms that go off, as well. Prices rise too high for consumers. Or, companies go bankrupt from low market prices for their products. Or, widespread defaults on loans become a problem.

The symptoms we are seeing now with the UK economy relate to a natural gas import system that is showing signs of distress. It is pleasant to think that the central bankers or public officials can fix all problems, but they really cannot, just as we cannot fix all problems with our health.

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Susan Miller 1 month ago Member's comment

Excellent as always, Gail.